A new $31 million initiative funds YMCA memberships for families of National Guardmembers and Reservists.

The National Guard is 370 years old, the YMCA of the USA is 157, and the Armed Services Y is 147. But it wasn't until two months ago that a Department of Defense appropriation brought these groups (as well as the Armed Forces Reserve, currently celebrating their centennial) together in a unified approach to bring fitness within easier reach of the families of Guardmembers and Reservists deployed overseas.

Launched in response to a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, the Armed Services YMCA and Department of Defense Outreach Initiative is providing $31 million in government funding for families of deployed military personnel to receive free limited-time memberships at YMCAs in their communities. The two-year base period of the agreement runs through September 2010, with three possible one-year extensions.

Andrea Reno, director of special projects for the YMCA of the USA, concedes that the initiative represents extended military duty for the Y. "YMCAs have supported service personnel since the Civil War in some way or fashion," she says. "But the purpose of the initiative isn't to serve active-duty personnel who have access to base fitness centers; it's designed for the families of Guardmembers, Reservists and other active-duty personnel whose spouse and children are at home, in the community."

"Most Guard and Reserve families are not affiliated with an installation, and therefore have limited opportunity to participate in family or fitness programs," echoes Les' Melnyk (it's pronounced "Lesh"), Department of Defense press officer. "On-base military fitness centers for the most part meet or exceed DoD standards, but they are primarily used by people who live and work on or near the installation."

The change is reflective of the shifting missions of the Guard and Reserve in recent years. Organized primarily to help respond to domestic emergencies and natural disasters, and to augment the active-duty military in times of war, the Guard and Reserve increasingly are compelled to serve something more akin to active duty, with multiple tours not uncommon. But, actually, the initiative targets three other groups, as well - families living in newly established Joint Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) bases, active-duty "independent duty" personnel (recruiters, ROTC officers and so on) and their families, and relocated spouses and family members of deployed active-duty personnel. The overarching target is families living in locations far removed from base resources.

This made YMCAs the logical service provider, Melnyk says. "The YMCA is uniquely positioned in all 50 states at more than 2,600 locations, and can help support family readiness, particularly for families of deployed Guard and Reserve personnel," he says.

Participating Ys were instructed to register with YMCA of the USA to ensure that reimbursement of membership fees went smoothly, and that they would be promoted nationally by the various services and the Armed Services YMCA. For its part, the Armed Services YMCA set down the following provisions, requiring that YMCAs:

  • offer six-month memberships for adults or a "single-parent family with dependent children" membership category, at no more than $70 per month;
  • waive all enrollment fees;
  • waive any fees associated with on-site child watch/drop-in care services while parents are engaged in YMCA activities;
  • verify military personnel's military ID and deployment orders;
  • include the deployed family member on the membership at no extra charge in the three-month period before or after deployment;
  • track eligible members' use of the YMCA facility and programs via existing software capabilities or manual log to monitor and verify adequate usage rates for renewals;
  • submit documentation to verify membership enrollment for the purpose of reimbursement;
  • provide participation data and a synopsis of military-related programs when requested by the Armed Services YMCA;
  • promote the Armed Services YMCA and Department of Defense Outreach Initiative at local Guard and Reserve events as appropriate or when requested by the Armed Services YMCA;
  • host a military outreach event at the YMCA once per month (assuming that more than 10 military families have joined), at no cost to families or the DoD;
  • contact each family twice within the first 30 days of their membership to help integrate them into YMCA programs and services.

Reno notes that while the six-month membership intervals are a departure for Ys (they're set at six months to mirror the minimum duration of a deployment), the Armed Services Y's requirements are not as onerous as they might seem.

"A lot of Ys right now already offer discounts to military personnel; Indiana is a good example of a state where numerous Ys subsidize military families through their annual support campaigns," Reno says. "So this is not a new concept for a lot of Ys."

It will take some time for the DoD to determine just how many memberships it is underwriting. Beneficiaries are being as carefully directed as the YMCAs that will serve them - membership renewals will only be available to new members who meet the participation requirement of eight visits to their Y each month. The initial $31 million outlay was calculated after consideration of a number of factors, Melnyk says - actual and planned deployment schedules, the number of independent-duty commands, an estimated percentage of participation, the average cost of YMCA or fitness-center memberships, just to name a few. "We'll know early in the process if participation exceeds initial estimates, and we will have time to review funding alternatives," he says.

As noted, the DoD is also picking up the tab for the deployed family member for three months prior to going overseas and for three months after returning. "The DoD wanted to make sure the deploying spouse had an opportunity to be with his or her family before he or she left," says Reno. "They realize how stressful it is when you get your deployment orders, and how many things have to be in order."

After all, physical health is just one of many wellness benefits expected to be reaped from the cooperative program.

"This initiative will give these isolated military personnel and their families opportunities for recreation, exercise and social programming, and help that important sense of community," says Melnyk. "We hope a high percentage of families take advantage of the memberships and are able to meet and socialize with others facing the same deployment-related issues."